Unforgotten: Twenty-five Years After Willowbrook
R1 - America - Cinema Libre
Review written by and copyright: James Teitelbaum (10th November 2008).
The Film

In 1965, Senator Robert Kennedy drew attention to Willowbrook School - actually an asylum for the mentally retarded in New York - that was heinously neglecting the patients within. It seems as though no one really paid much attention to Senator Kennedy's warnings until 1972, when a doctor told his journalist friend about the miserable conditions of Willowbrook. This journalist, one Geraldo Rivera (maybe you've heard of him), snuck into Willowbrook using a stolen key, and documented the horrifying conditions within. Due to massive budget cuts, a gross lack of the state being able to prioritize its resources, and a general lack of the most basic human compassion, Willowbrook was grossly understaffed. The patients living there were infested with parasites, were starving, were sleeping on floors, were naked, and had a 100% infection rate for hepatitis. They were living like animals, or worse. Rivera's 1972 footage (which is seen in this DVD) is mortifying and shocking. Truly, only Nazi Germany concentration camp documentation can trump the Willowbrook film in its depiction of human misery and suffering. To date, few if any horror film directors have managed to create a fiction as disturbing and emotionally distressing as what Rivera captured in 1972. Certainly, Rivera did a great thing in exposing the squalor of Willowbrook, it is just too bad that he was spent the ensuing decades essentially tarnishing his reputation as a journalist and perhaps degrading the profession of journalism with his crass and sensationalistic works. Thus, it is fortunate that Rivera is not the focus of this 1996 documentary. He is indeed interviewed about his crucial role in bringing the tragedy of Willowbrook to light, but this documentary mercifully chooses instead to focus on some of the families of the former Willowbrook patients.

Members of four families appear on camera, telling their stories. Most of them were surprised and distraught when their mentally retarded family members entered the world, and most of them were reluctant and sad to place their children in an institution. At the time the patients in question entered Willowbrook - say the 1950's until 1972 - placing challenged kids in an asylum was a fairly common thing to do. But of course, after Geraldo's expose, Willowbrook eventually closed, and the people existing within are now taken care of in various other ways (home care, group homes, etc.).

Twenty-five years later, the few former Willowbrook patients that appear in this program are generally happier and healthier, and are now living relatively happy lives with their families. The point of the program is to show us how much progress in caring for these people has been made during the past three decades. Although the Rivera footage shown between about the ten and twenty-minute marks of the doc are relentlessly grim, the show tries to turn the mood around by the end, hoping to elevate spirits by showing us how much things have improved.

Video

Aspect ratio is 4:3. Compression is pretty nasty, with a lot of artifacting and pixelation. Given that the program is less than an hour long, there is no excuse for how bad it looks. Running time is 57;19, divided into six chapters.

Audio

Audio is in English Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. Some of the mentally or physically challenged people interviewed in the film, and also some of the people for whom English is not a native language, have a lot of trouble making themselves understood. It is probably true that the producers of this film would have considered it disrespectful to provide subtitles for these people. Ultimately, their words are unintelligible in many cases, and I find it to be even more of a disservice to not give these people some gentle help in expressing their ideas in the form of some subtitles.

Extras

Cinema Libre has included a TV special, a theatrical trailer and a couple of PSA's. Below is closer look at these supplements.

Included on the disc a the primary bonus feature is the original "Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace" TV special which runs for 27 minutes 6 seconds by Geraldo Rivera. Transferred from 1972 video tape, the picture and sound are both pretty bad. However the content here is key, and this harrowing, heartbreaking, and nauseating piece of film is crucial viewing.

This is followed by a 1982 "ABC News" report TV clip which runs for 25 minutes 34 seconds following up on the 1972 report. This feature is not listed on the menu, but it plays automatically after the previous report. By 1982, not much had changed, unfortunately.

The only other feature is a theatrical trailer for the doc which runs for 2 minutes 3 seconds and a pair of PSA's which run for 1 minute 35 seconds and 1 minute 51 seconds.

Overall

The Film: A Video: D Audio: C Extras: B+ Overall: C+

 


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